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Glen Rock Stairs

About two weeks before leaving for three days of Roadshows in New Jersey a while back, I got a call from a friend in North Carolina: “Hey,” he said, “I know this guy in New Jersey who turns 16-ft. columns and tall porch posts on a 19th-century lathe!” I couldn’t pass that up.

For the last few years, Tom Brewer, Mike Sloggatt, and I have been traveling around America doing carpentry clinics at local lumberyards and tool stores. The experience has been a blessing. We’ve met carpenters and lumberyard staff, manufacturers’ representatives and marketing people from every corner of the country. Regardless of the jokes and criticism we all hear about our industry, every mile of the way we’ve met honest, hardworking, and responsible trades people.

(Click any image to enlarge.)

Walking into Glen Rock Stairs is like stepping back in time. Sure, they’re using some new machinery, like automated CNC routers for cutting out stringers, but, for the most part, they build stairs the old-fashioned way. Each carpenter is assigned a specialty task and a special area of the shop.

Carriages

Dave Jeltes works on a comfortable hardwood floor, assembling carriages. I caught up with Dave as he was fastening the stringers to the treads (see photo, right)—all with hand nails: “I like to feel the nails do their job—draw things up tight,” he told me. “That’s something I can’t feel with a nail gun.” He didn’t need pneumatics at the speed he was driving nails.

Unlike most carpenters today, Dave’s hammer is his most-used tool.

After securing the treads, he lays the carriage down and drives in wedges before installing the risers.

Stepping quickly, he snaps on the wedges with the side of the hammer.
Next, risers are dropped into each mortise. Then the risers are nailed into the back of each tread.
After that, more wedges are driven, each with a single hammer blow…
…and snapped off with the flat of the hammer.

There’s no fancy machinery in Dave Jeltes work area, just Dave.

Radius Stairs

Everyone has a nickname at Glen Rock—and for good reason. Many of the craftsmen are first generation Polish immigrants. “Richie” (Ryszard Kluk) builds radius stairs in Glen Rock’s new assembly room, where everything imaginable is possible. Even the radius stairs have housed stringers. Once the stringers are mortised, Richie installs the treads.

Starting at the top, he slips each tread into a stringer mortise, then marks for the bullnose cut.

The two bottom treads are laid out for bullnose returns on both ends.

Nosing Returns

“Voytek” (Wojciech Minarczuk) cuts and fits each bullnose return on a bandsaw, starting with a miter.

It takes a steady hand to support the workpiece and make a straight cut right through the miter.
Next, Voytek makes the cross cut.
And last, he makes the rip, cutting off the bullnose waste.
The pre-cut radius caps are fit by eye,
trimmed a little on the miter saw,
and then the final joint is finished on the band saw.
To perfect the miters, Voytek holds the joint tightly closed with his hand, then carefully passes the bandsaw blade through the miter.
Timing is critical. Voytek stops cutting precisely at the heel of the miter, then releases the cap before withdrawing the tread.

All of the bullnose starter steps are assembled in another corner of the shop, by Faith Noah. She’s the only woman working in a shop full of men, but no one risks giving Faith any guff. Her workbench is set up for one chore, and with every clamp and cawl in place, she makes the job look easy.

In a much larger space, Jaroslaw (Jerry) Ziplinski assembles all the handrails. Using power tools is dangerous, and we all try to work safely. Jerry was kind enough to remove the guard on his custom dual-kerf cutter so we could see clearly how the tool operates. Jerry starts by making two cuts in the first piece, then matches the joint and marks locations for mating cuts in the second piece.

Jerry joins all of his railing parts with Clamp Nails.

Clamp Nail Company: 21 W. Lone Cactus Dr. Phoenix, AZ 85027-2940 (623) 581-0204

Back in the 1980s, we used to fasten all our casing miters with Clamp Nails. I never knew where they came from. Now I do. And they work great for fastening all types of wood joinery.

Clamp Nail was started in 1917 near the Chicago area and is still owned and operated by the same family, though sixteen years ago they moved to Phoenix, AZ. Used in everything from furniture to picture frames to cabinet doors, clamp nails are really popular for caskets. The company tends to sell mostly to manufacturers of high-end products.

Jerry likes the fasteners because they’re much faster than rail bolts, and the joints are bulletproof. Clamp Nail have flanges that open on the wide end, so as the nails are driven—wide end first—and the flanges narrows, the joint is drawn tighter and tighter.

John Everett took us on a tour of the shop first, then, like saving the dessert, he showed us his workstation last. Tucked into a corner at the back of the shop, beneath a bank of high windows, John operates a lathe that surely dates back to the 19th century. Once powered by steam, and maybe even a water wheel, the lathe pulley and belt are now driven by an electric motor. And that is the only difference between John Everett and generations of wood turners who have used the same machine.

• • •

THISisSafety

Please don’t try anything you see in THISisCarpentry, or anywhere else for that matter, unless you’re completely certain that you can do it safely.

Comments/Discussion

23 Responses to “Glen Rock Stairs”

  1. Dave

    Gary, thanks. This turning section was great, really could learn a lot from this guy

    Reply
  2. Jesse Wright

    I LOVE this!…
    I could sit and watch John Everett all day! Entertaining, down to earth, humble as well as a great teacher! Thank you John!

    Thanks Gary for another inspiring piece. One day Ill get myself a lathe. I can see that would be SO much FUN!

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Jesse,
      This one experience is the best example of why I love publishing TiC…being able to visit with people like John and share the experience and to do it with Tom Brewer–when the two of us have nothing in common but carpentry and a real enjoyment of good people…it’s been an incredible blessing, something I’ve always wanted to do: go places, visit historic home, visit with other carpenters, and write about it/photograph it, and not shoot video, too. Tom and I have been places you can’t imagine. From Falling Water to Gettysburg; from Huck Finn’s home town to Promontory Point–yes, we’ve seen the golden spike, or the painted one they use these days. What a trip, literallly. And John is such an important part of it.

      Reply
  3. Don DeJong

    John Everett has been a good friend since we were kids, and it’s great to see that he has become such a fine craftsman. No pretense, that’s John. Great sense of humor, a little philosophy thrown in, I’m proud to see John get this recognition. Thanks for a great article, Gary!

    Reply
  4. Tim Raleigh

    Very cool.
    “Sometimes you don’t need more gear, the answer is how much time you spend with it” great quote.
    Tim

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Tim,
      You really hit the sweet spot of that whole article/experience for me, too! That ONE sentence. It haunts me, no matter what I’m trying to learn how to do–spey cast for steelhead, row a boat, use a skew chisel, work with other people…:) It’s not about more gear. Life is not about more gear.

      Reply
      • Ray Menard

        I completely agree! What a great teacher is John. Good to have a video record. If it was more complicated he couldn’t do it – yeah right! I had to laugh.

        Great story.

        Reply
  5. Jim Baldwin

    Watching John turn on that old wooden bed lathe takes me back a few years. My grandpa was one of those “old guys” that John refers to and I worked for him as a kid. I’ve still got all the old lathe parts (Porter head and tail stock (cir. 1880) along with his shop made turning tools and tool rests and stuff.

    I’ve only known about a half dozen hand turners like John and nearly all of them are long gone. Having a resident wood turner in a stair shop today is extremely rare.

    Thanks for sharing

    .

    Reply
  6. Mike Kennedy

    Great to see other people’s shops…other members of the exclusive “Stair Club for Men”!

    Reply
  7. Fred West

    Thank you very much. Watching John was truly a treat. I can’t begin to imagine what the “old guys” could that he can’t but then the thought of using only a skew chisel is fairly mind boggling. Great video.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Fred,
      I keep watching parts of that video to learn how to use that skew chisel. And it’s helped a lot, even though I still can’t do it, I’ve learned more from John’s video about the importance of ‘practice’ than I’ve learned from anything or anyone else.

      Reply
  8. Simon

    Great article and excellent timing as I’m about to start on the handrail on my own staircase project.

    Reply
  9. Rob Potter

    Great video of John turning that lamp post! We need to see and learn from these “old timers” (especially the old timers who were taught by the really old timers).
    Thanks for sharing.
    Rob

    Reply
  10. Doug Kuiken

    I’ve known (been friends with)the people at Glen Rock Stairs my entire life. Between what they do at Glen Rock Stairs and what John Everett does at his turning shop….Nobody does it better!
    I have several sets of stairs by Glen Rock in my home and John has done some custom turning for me, as well. Great story, Great companies.

    Thanks for sharing this one.

    Doug

    Reply
  11. Robert

    Very Impressive & educational. You have to admire this kind of knowledge & craftsmanship!

    Reply
  12. Jon Patterson

    I love this article! I want to be just like these guys when I grow up.

    When I use railbolts, I can’t seem to control the profiles of the railing even with using two brads at the top of the joint. I asked my salesman at a local building supply outfit and he said he had never heard of these fasteners. I sent him a link to this article. He indicated that all finish carpenters should use rail bolts. Yet in the article, they are listed as just as strong.

    “Jerry joins all of his railing parts with Clamp Nails.”

    Are there any carpenters out there using Clamp Nails, or is this, like my salesman said just for manufacturers?

    Reply
  13. Jim Baldwin

    Jon:

    This subject was recently addressed on JLC, Finish Carpentry, under the heading “This is Carpentry” ( by Top Notch 10/15). I happen to agree with your salesman but you can review several opinions.

    Reply
  14. Jerry DeJong

    Glen Rock Stair- quality people and quality work, my father talked of their work and reputation a long time ago, I can see it is still around today, nice to know that it still matters

    Reply
  15. Barb Meyer Heersink

    I laughed when you said ‘it’s really very simple”! Nice to see you John.

    Reply
  16. Eelke

    Glade someone else is using kerf-keys/clamp-nails. Have used them for years, it’s the way I learn to work with handrail. If I need/want more strength I’ll use a railbolt. After hitting a railbolt when drilling for a baluster you’ll understand. Also doing repair work on handrail helps.

    OK Gary can I join the “group”

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Eelke,
      You’re definitely “in”. Thanks for commenting. I’ve been looking for someone to shoot pictures and explain how they use kef-coamp-nails to tighten up miters in casing. I’ve seen large machines that make the kerf cut, but I’d like to see how guys do it in the field or in small shops. And I enjoyed your note about the Jim Baldwin and how he uses the bandsaw, too.
      Gary

      Reply

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